Content : Part encyclopaedia, part travel guide, part war chronicles, The Histories written by Herodotus around 455 BC is a rambling assortment of likely truth and undoubted imagination which finally culminates in the war between the Persian Empire and the Greeks, specifically Athens and Sparta. Along the way we witness numerous conflicts around the Eastern Mediterranean, and pictures of the various civilizations, including Persia, Sparta, Egypt, Ethiopia, Arabia, India, and numerous others.
The Histories have been divided into 9 chapters or ‘books’ with the final three describing the war between Xerxes’ Persian Empire forces and the Greeks, touching lightly on the Battle of Marathon in book 6 before the ultimate clash of armies at Thermopylae, and navies at Salamis, as depicted in Aeschylus’ The Persians, and the final defeat at Plataea.
My copy is the Penguin edition (ISBN 9780140449082) translated by Aubrey de Selincourt and revised by John Marincola, with helpful maps and numerous footnotes.
My thoughts: Herodotus was the first writer to attempt to record history putting men at the source of their own decisions without the continual presence of various Gods (although reliance on consulting the advice of the Oracles was a very significant strategy to reassure kings they were doing the right thing). Herodotus is called the Father of History but also the Father of Lies, as although he tries to separate his personally verified facts from hearsay, his natural history at least is very imaginative (dog-headed men, flying snakes migrating from Arabia to Egypt, hippos with horses’ manes and tails, crocodiles with ears and golden earrings, and cats leaping deliberately into house fires)
Herodotus treats many of the earlier Persian actions without rancour, particularly those of Cyrus and his successor Darius. Xerxes is not as favourably depicted, as demonstrated by his madness when his bridges spanning the Hellespont are destroyed by storm and he decides to have the river flogged with whips and branded with hot irons in retribution. (p.429)
When the two forces are about to meet, Herodotus makes much of the fact that it was Athens’ decision to stay firm and resist the invaders that saved Greece (and subsequently Europe) from Asiatic tyranny, despite Sparta providing considerable manpower and the generals to run both the sea and land campaigns, most notably Leonidas, King of Sparta and his famous 300 countrymen who stood and resisted the Persians at the Pass of Thermopylae.
Again the logic of reading the classics in chronological order is useful to me, as mention is made not only of the events in Homer’s Iliad, but also the works of Hesiod, Aesop, Sappho, Pindar and Aeschylus.
“No one is fool enough to choose war instead of peace – in peace sons bury fathers, but in war fathers bury sons.” Croesus, defeated King of Lydia (p.41)
“Retreat is no longer possible for either of us ; if we do not inflict the wound, we shall assuredly receive it” Xerxes, King of Persia commits his empire to the War (p. 421)
And what Monty Python fan could resist the description of the Indian tribe the Padaei, who live on raw meat, and especially eat any of their friends who fall ill, before the ‘meat’ can be ruined, despite the protestations of the sick person that they are not sick or feeling better. (p.215)
Diversions/digressions: I read the bulk of this book while on holidays in Hawaii, which is about as removed from the ancient Mediterranean as I can possibly imagine. As for diversions provided by the writing, there were so many different stories and claims made that it often diverted itself from the history it was reporting.
Personal rating: 7/10.
Next : The plays of the other two Greek tragedians, Sophocles and Euripides, starting with Antigone by Sophocles.